The first distinct memory of Malgudi to me is the depiction of a sleepy homely almost familiar town as shown in our black and white tv on Sunday mornings. Then there were children like me in the town doing stuff which I used to do in my childhood. There were Swaminathan and Mani and their schoolmates. They played cricket in the town’s only playground. They went together to the river side and sat on the riverbank and savoured pickles.
Incidentally, the town I lived in at that time was also beside a river. I had also friends like Mani and we also played cricket. We had teachers too like Samuel and our fathers appeared more or less like Swami’s. So watching the tv series at that time was like seeing incidents of our own lives.
Later in the afternoons when we played in the ground adjacent to our houses in our own sleepy muffassil town, we thought we were just redoing what had been shown on tv. Then when we picked up reading habits, we started exchanging between us storybooks. The books were varied- from detective and adventure novels to comic books or graphic novellas. At that time, some one got ‘Malgudi days’ from the library and as soon as we started reading we realised that the person who should be credited for creating such a wonderous town all by himself was not the director of the tv series actually but R.K.Narayan. The pictures drawn in the pages of the book as illustrations of certain episodes of the stories also moved us so much that one of my friends who had a penchant for drawing, started imitating the style of the artist who drew them. We were equally enthralled to know that the artist was also R.K.( but not Narayan , Laxman as he was , the brother of R.K.Narayan).
The town of Malgudi had that smell and flavour and ambience which could inspire any traveler to hunt for it. Infact for many years, we thought there was actually a town called Malgudi somewhere down south. We were really shocked when we were made to understand that there was no town like that. It was purely fictitious.It was really a hard pill for us to swallow . The river, the post office, the roads, the playground, the school, the whistle of train passing through the railway station, the peepul trees and mango grove- all came together in our impressionable young minds to make such an indelible mark that we sometimes even believed that our town was another Malgudi and R.K. Narayan was someone who had stayed in our town at one point of time or other.
Ashalata was trying to do her thread work on a cotton cloth. Nowadays, she couldn’t even see well. Age was slowly taking its toll upon her eyes. Her hands also shake a bit. Still, around this time, she would sit with her needle, colorful threads, and cotton cloths. For every year, all the way from the country of opulence her grandson from her son’s side would come. She had other grandsons and granddaughters from her daughters’ side, but she had always kept a very secret adoration or love for the son of her only son. He bore the title of the family, according to the custom and more importantly inspite of being very much habituated to western culture and ethos, he had still kept a very Bengali heart. In fact, Ashalata noticed, that Snehangshu, her son Santosh’s only son, was more interested in anything Bengali, be it food, songs, or literature. So, she would make every year a special embroidery upon a simple piece of cotton cloth. And Snehangshu would take it, and with it he would go away after his two or three day’s stay. Once Ashalata had asked Snehangshu what he actually did with all those cotton cloths. He showed her a photo taken in his phone of a small wooden box where he had kept them, stored, like people store valuables. That pleased Ashalata greatly. She even became a bit emotional. Her only son who had left her alone in the house built by her husband Indranath, soon after his marriage and settled at a faraway town, would come too, with his wife. Her daughters would too arrive. They being settled in faraway towns too. But this year, before Holi or Doljatra as it is usually called here, the festival of colors, her daughters had called her and reported that they would be going together with their husbands and children for a tour. Her only son, Santosh, upon hearing that his sisters and their husbands and children were not arriving, also thought that later they would gather at their ancestral house and have a fitting get together. Ashalata became a bit morose, but soon she tried to console herself saying that after all she had grown old and had become overtly sensitive and perhaps sentimental. She blamed her sadness to her senescence. But, by God’s grace, she was informed by Santosh that though he and his wife would not be there, their son and her grandson Snehangshu would go and stay there at least for a day, if not two. She became elated. She had found an energy. She asked her only companion and long time cook cum butler cum errand man, Naru to clean the room adjacent to her room in her small single storied house which her late husband used as study cum living. She had made Naru to bring vegetables and groceries and fish and meat from the market. She herself supervised Naru when he broomed the bed, put bed cover and pillow covers. From the morning she was humming a tune or so. Happy as she was. At around ten, a taxi stopped in front of her house. She at once asked Naru to move to the gate to help Snehangshu to offload his bag or luggage. She followed Naru too, but due to arthritis she couldn’t move fast. And just when she was about to be on the verandah, Snehangshu came and touched her feet. She took his chin by her hand and embraced him. ‘Kemon acho didi?’ (How are you granny?) Snehangshu said. Ashalata smiled almost like a child, ‘Now that you have come I am so happy!’ She said. The day went in cooking various Bengali cuisine and serving them to Snehangshu and in turn listening to stories from him about the country where he had been working for the last four years. ‘Would you not come back soon?’ She asked. ‘Na didi, I have works…’ Snehangshu said. The day turned evening. Then night. The granny and her grandson kept on talking, laughing, exchanging stories. The grandson had given his granny a beautiful scarf and some tinned food items. Granny had given the grandson another embroidered cotton cloth. After dinner, when he was about to go to his room, Snehangshu said, ‘Didi, this time I would go back to our house soon…by tomorrow afternoon…will that be okay?’ Ashalata turned her head to one side. She had a deep sense of hurt when she heard that but she couldn’t plead her grandson to stay for at least a day more. He might have works, she thought. She couldn’t be selfish. Next morning when the granny and the grandson were having tea, the granny finally gathered some confidence and asked: ‘Dadu bhai, how wonderful it would have been if you would have stayed for at least one day more…’ ‘But didi , you know, I got works. The company where I work at that foreign country is actually thinking of opening a subsidiary here … And I would have to be very much busy in doing liaison…you see…’ Snehangshu informed Ashalata. Ashalata again bent her head sideways. Of course she could understand her grandson’s works and their importance. The hour of departure came. ‘Uff! Tumi ja khawaley na thamma…akhono hojom hoi ni…’ (The amount of food you had served to me are yet to be digested…) Snehangshu tried to ease off the grimness that loomed over his granny’s face. Ashalata tried to smile. Naru had managed to arrange for a taxi. It would take Snehangshu to the train station. The taxi was waiting at the gate. Snehangshu touched Ashalata’s feet. Ashalata tried to keep her composure. Just then, Snehangshu’s cell started ringing. He took out the cellphone and went a few paces away . ‘Oh! Really! That’s fabulous! ‘ That was the last bit of conversation which Ashalata could hear as her grandson came near her. ‘Granny, know what?’ The grandson was visibly elated. ‘What?’ Ashalata asked. ‘Just a few months, say eight or nine, after that, I would be in this country!’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘I asked my boss to keep me posted if there would be any chance of fitting me into the subsidiary that would be opened here, and he just informed me that if I wish, I could join the subsidiary unit once it would start operating…and that is only a few months away!’ The grandson gushed. ‘But your parents? Santosh? Mugdha? Will they be happy?’ ‘Why not? They would get their son at home… And…’ Snehangshu added, Like an afterthought, ‘If they would get worried about my career options, my future, I would convince them… Why worry?’ Ashalata felt that she had given away those embroidered cotton cloths to the fittest person in the world. She smiled. The sky of spring had wondrous hues spread like a canvas dipped in a riot of colors. Ashalata thought Doljatra or Holi had arrived early at her home. A bit early.
And those birds which she kept caged in her soul for years long, they always wanted to go away flying , taking off from her shoulder perhaps. I just got the curious chance to see them as once she spoke about them. It had been a beautiful day of spring. The air was on the drier side. The trees were getting their new dresses. The roads of our town were getting fresh new coat of asphalt. She told me how one bird in her wanted to go all the way to Volos, a sea side town of Greece while another had the desire to go to Egypt. Then there had been another with a Mediterranean spirit. And another which longed to visit the Alps. And another which had an ascetic bent, finding calm only in lonely caves of the Himalayas.
‘But how do you keep them in you for so many years, without setting them free? Do they not quarrel? Do they not chatter and freak you out?’
I asked her that day of spring when the weather had been particularly enchanting. The scent of blossoms was lingering in the air. The sky was clear like the one we oft see in picture postcards.
And hearing my query she smiled.
‘A woman can keep a thousand birds in her and yet she can be perfectly sane with them, for she has a bit of her in each one of them and each one of them is her part. She knows them all too well and she feeds them, cares for them, loves them, caresses them and gives them the shelter. A woman is like a bird sanctuary. She keeps the chirpings as another layer of her emotive expressions. ‘
No she simply did not say that.
She spelt that.
I heard the wings fluttering soon after… wings of many birds, all fluttering at once.
Lakshmi or the Goddess of wealth or corn , the Indian version of Ceres or Demeter, is widely worshipped in hindu households of India. In our childhood, soon after the big Durga Puja, Lakshmi puja always came with another bout of joy and mirth. Usually after the immersion of Durga, there had been an overwhelming sense of gloom hanging over us. The ‘para’ which had remained illuminated during Durga puja, suddenly looked pensive and a bit off colour. We had to go back to our studies which had so far been kept off our daily charts because of Durga puja. Devi Lakshmi would arrive then with a renewed energy of fun and togetherness. We had a grand ceremony of series of rituals in our ancestral house where my uncles and aunts and all brothers and sisters stayed. Mother and aunts would become busy at least two or three days before the actual day of the puja in making ‘ narus’ of various flavour and color. Some were made of coconut while there were others made of puffed rice. The process of making triangle shaped ‘namkins’ was also very interesting. On plates they were cut in shapes usually with the help of knives. Then they were fried. We used to roam around the kitchen and as soon as they were thrown into cane baskets for straining , we would manage to ‘steal’ a few straight from those baskets. We would get some ‘narus’ too and run to a nearby garden. Aunts and mother would yell behind us. Uncles would show mock anger and guffaw. We however would gather at the garden and savour those delicacies. The afternoon sun peeping through the leaves of trees would fall on us gently. The eldest amongst us would then tell us a story of adventure. We would sit and listen to that with avid ears.
The evening would allow all of us to gather at the verandah. While father and uncles would be having discussions upon various issues- from political scenario to football, aunts would be busy making arrangements for the puja. Copper utensils were scrubbed. Banana leaves were washed and cleaned and cut into proper sizes. Fruits were cut and chopped. ‘Khichuri’ was made. The smell of incense and camphor would fill the hall. Mother and aunts and sisters would dip cotton balls into rice paste and draw special decorative motifs or ‘ alpona’ on the floor of the house. Little foot marks were also drawn which were believed to be marks of Devi Lakshmi’s footsteps. The full moon which would surely rise on the occasion would lend an aura of silvery beauty around. We would wait for the priest or ‘purohit’ to arrive. While the holy man would chant his prayers, we would be waiting with all eagerness for the ‘puja’ to be over. For only after the puja we would be given the ‘prasad’ and then the ‘khichuri’ . After ‘dashami’ , Lakshmi puja would provide us with another opportunity to go to neighbouring houses and have sweets and ‘prasad’ there. The locality would remain abuzz with laughter of children, loud chants of prayers and ringing of bells and blowing of conch shells. Most importantly Lakshmi puja would weave a strong bond of togetherness amongst us.
And that surely was the greatest of all wealth.